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Poultry scientists step ahead in protecting environment

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

It wouldn't be a stretch to call Georgia the king of the hill when it comes to poultry. After all, the state produces 24.6 million broiler chickens each day, more than any other U.S. state and more than most nations.

And that hill would be largely composed of chicken litter were it not for an innovative voluntary nutrient management program.

"The whole purpose of the plan is to teach farmers how to apply chicken litter correctly to soil as a fertilizer and avoid nutrient contamination in soil and ground water," said Dan Cunningham, a University of Georgia poultry scientist and the program's administrator.

Less than four years after its start, nearly every poultry grower in Georgia has been trained in the best way to manage the poultry litter on their farm, whether it's applied to their own fields or hauled to nearby farms. More than 3,800 farmers had the training in more than 70 sessions.

"We're as close to having every poultry producer in the state trained as we can possibly be," Cunningham said. "Since January, we've been doing follow-up programs, which are basically refresher courses. And we've already done eight to 10 this year, working with 400 to 500 people."

Pros and cons

When the adage, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," was coined, the coiner may have had chicken litter in mind.

"Chicken litter is actually what we call a complete fertilizer," said Glen Harris, a soil scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "It contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, as well as other minerals, so it's good stuff. And that's the reason we bother using it.

"The challenge with poultry litter is that we fertilize most crops for nitrogen," Harris said. "Poultry litter contains too much phosphorus in proportion to the nitrogen. So if too much litter is applied to a field, the excess phosphorus can eventually run off into the groundwater, causing algae blooms in lakes and reservoirs. Eventually, you can get fish kills."

Another challenge it presents, he said, is its odor. "Folks have tried all kinds of deodorants and such. But let's call a spade a spade: it stinks," he said.

How it works

To use chicken litter as fertilizer and avoid nutrient contamination, poultry growers must keep careful records. They must have both the litter and soil to which it will be applied analyzed.

"The program and training are site-specific," Cunningham said. "That's the point: one farm may have a major water source running through it, and obviously the concerns there would be quite different from another one down the road with no proximity to a water source."

Growers are also trained on how to apply and store the manure, prevent soil erosion and dispose of dead birds.

The Georgia Poultry Federation plays matchmaker, matching farmers who want manure and with those who have it available. Because transporting the litter is costly, finding farms near the growers is crucial.

Environmental protection

As the poultry industry in Georgia has grown, so have concerns about water and soil contamination. Algae blooms in Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona, as well as soil samples showing too much phosphorous in the farmland of 13 counties, have made it clear that properly managing poultry litter is necessary.

The fact that Georgia's nutrient management program is voluntary is unique, Cunningham said.

"Before there was any indication that there was an environmental problem, before there were any rules or regulations, we decided to take a proactive approach," he said.

"We protect the state's surface water and groundwater and enhance the value of litter as fertilizer through best management practices," he said, "which is what this program teaches."

(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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